Authoritarianism depends, in part, on demoralization. Few things are as demoralizing as facing the possibility of having your child’s healthcare taken away.
The political drama surrounding CHIP funding as well as the awful Medicaid work requirement possibility have various underpinnings. These issues can be analyzed from a fiscal perspective, from the perspective of party politics, and so on. Yet we would be remiss in avoiding discussion of the bigger picture here, which is that scared and desperate people tend to be easier to control.
Think about it this way: Automatization is doing away with more and more jobs. The middle class is being eroded. Oligarchy is being normalized — to question why someone like Jeff Bezos would need zillions of dollars, for example, is, somehow, to question the (utterly hollowed out) concept of the American Dream. Our infrastructure is aging and lack of trust in institutions was on the rise even before a demagogue like Donald J. Trump decided to promote his personal brand by running for president in what was supposed to be a doomed campaign.
This is the toxic mess that authoritarian tendencies and abuse of power thrive on. The tactics employed to bring a society down to its knees vary wildly, but they tend to have one thing in common: they promote a kind of strong emotional dislocation. To paraphrase W.B. Yeats, “The emotional center cannot hold.”
Politics affects our psyche. It is useless to pretend otherwise. Even people who claim to be apolitical are affected (the very claim of “apolitical” means that one is still defining oneself against the backdrop of a particular system). This is especially evident in the fight for healthcare in our country — where those who issue emotional appeals to preserve and expand healthcare rights come into contact with opponents who dismiss the issue as “fake news,” call free/cheap healthcare “communism,” or else angrily demand to know why they should be helping out “someone else’s kids.”
“Why should I help your kid out, bitch” = “We don’t live in a society.”
Take away a society and you end up with wanting to look to a strongman, i.e. a Vladimir Putin type. There are many reasons why so many Trump supporters admire Putin (such as racism and the idea that in Russia, minority groups “know their place,” for example), but wanting to trust a strongman primarily comes from a deep, primal place of fear. Strongmen emerge when the world looks to be a wild place and the cosmic winds threaten to blow it all apart.
While I like the label of “hybrid regime” for the Russian Federation — if only because the government is so inefficient as to be unable to oppress everybody all at once — Putin has an undeniably authoritarian worldview, and mistrusts those of his citizens who are emboldened enough to question any official narrative. Long before emboldenment becomes the result of desperation, however, it arises as the result of relative privilege — the idea that one is not merely busy surviving, but able to expand time and energy on analyzing the landscape before them and noticing the things that are going wrong in it. There is a reason why urbanites led the 2011-2012 protests against the Putin government — in a pre-sanctions, pre-crisis, pre-war with Ukraine and pre-campaign in Syria Russia — it’s the same reason why a weakened ruble and greater uncertainty and anxiety in Russia today are making more and more working class Russians from small towns, people who live closer to the bone, turn to protest today.
The Russian Federation is different from the United States in many, many ways, but Americans should be aware than when their leaders threaten their well-being and the well-being of their loved ones — and this is precisely what the healthcare “debate” is really about, it’s a debate on who gets to thrive and who gets to die — they are, directly or indirectly (and in the case of someone like Trump, his stated admiration of Putin is definitely coming from a real place), borrowing from Putin’s playbook. Making people feel as though their officials are deliberately playing dice with their lives helps to erode their confidence, not to mention undermine their view of themselves and their country. An electorate that doesn’t have a healthy view of itself is meanwhile easier to manipulate.
This is why it’s important to cut through the static surrounding the GOP’s stance on healthcare in particular. This isn’t an issue of “personal responsibility.” It’s not about “letting the market decide.” Certainly not anymore. It’s about “these people don’t care if they make you feel afraid. In fact, they aim to do just that.”
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